Women’s History Month Spotlight: Barbara Gittings

From The New York Public Library

As we spend the entire month of March celebrating women’s history, it’s pivotal that we take the time to remember some of the trailblazing lesbian women who were fighting for our rights long before we had any at all. During these tumultuous times where it seems like the rights of women all around are being meticulously peeled away layer by layer, it’s grounding to take a look back at where we came from and how far we’ve made it. So let’s take a moment to celebrate the life and accomplishments of the brave, badass Barbara Gittings, shall we?

Born in July of 1932 in Vienna while her father served as a US diplomat, Barbara spent her younger years attending Catholic school in Montreal before settling with her family in Wilmington, Delaware during World War II. When she was first beginning to wonder about her sexuality, Barbara went to see a psychiatrist in Chicago to discuss her uncomfortable feelings of being different than everyone else. The psychiatrist pointedly labeled her as a homosexual, offering to “cure” her with treatment.

Barbara noted back in a 1974 interview with Jonathan Net Katz that she refused treatment at the time simply because she didn’t have enough money to pay for it. Barbara said of the experience:

“Some people say, ‘She shouldn’t have given you a label.’ I disagree. I think she did me an enormous service, because once I said, ‘Yes, that’s me, that’s what I am,’ I was able to work with it.”

After this happened, Barbara began searching aggressively for literature to read on homosexuality. While studying at Northwestern University, she researched in the libraries only to discover “nonfiction” psychology material that associated homosexuality with phrases like “sexual perversion” and “sexual aberration” – terms she second-guessed because she couldn’t relate.

Instead of accepting such an abhorrent diagnosis and description of who she was, Barbara kept reading. She found, as so many of us still do today, that the most relatable material she could get her hands on was fiction. It served as both an escape and a more realistic depiction of who she was while providing a sense of community. Barbara told Katz:

“What really changed my image and gave me a much more positive feeling about homosexuality—even though I still thought it was a misfortune that needed to be changed – were the novels. In some of the so-called scientific materials I read, there were references to fiction titles, and I began to seek these out.”

One of the books she discovered during her search was The Well of Loneliness, a lesbian fiction novel by British author Radclyffe Hall. Barbara took this book home with her, and her father discovered it in her bedroom one day. As he couldn’t bring himself to discuss it with her face to face, he wrote her a letter condemning homosexuality and demanding that she burn the book, so Barbara just hid it in a better spot.

Barbara’s passion for literature and lesbian identity shaped her as an adult, leading her down a path of activism, social, and academic change. She became the first president of the New York chapter of Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian civil and political rights organization in the United States. The group began in San Fransisco as a way for lesbians to get together someplace outside of bars, which were more vulnerable to police raids.

DOB was formed in 1955, and a year later they launched the first nationally distributed lesbian magazine, The Ladder. The name was influenced by The Well of Loneliness, and the ladder one would need to climb out of it. Barbara took over as editor in 1963 and drove the magazine toward a more politically active direction, adding the phrase “A Lesbian Review” under the title of the publication.

During this time, Barbara’s political activism didn’t end with the magazine. She also participated in picketing at the White House to put an end to discrimination against federal employees. The mass firings of this period were referred to as “the lavender scare”. You can watch a riveting documentary about these witch hunts, which we reviewed here.

Barbara played a pivotal role in having homosexuality removed from the list of mental disorders with the American Psychiatric Association, which finally happened in 1973. The American Library Association also made her the head of the then dubbed “Gay Task Force” (it’s now called the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered Round Table) to oversee and edit the materials the organization had available on homosexuality. The Free Library of Philadelphia also names its gay and lesbian collection of reading materials after her.

Barbara Gittings passed away in February of 2007 from breast cancer. She is survived by her partner Kay Tobin Lahusen, and the entire lesbian community, who is grateful to her this and every month for her work and devotion.